Disclaimer – This post was poorly researched and most of the historical ‘facts’ are pieced together from my own recollection, books I’ve been reading and Wikipedia searches. Despite the lack of rigorous scholarship (or perhaps because of it) I expect the conclusion to be 100% correct.
When the pandemic is “over” – or, more precisely, when the right people decide to declare it “over” and we are living in a world split between Covid-negative and Covid-positive countries with a several year life expectancy gap between them – the consensus is that some things will go back to the way they were pre-2020, and others won’t. Whether or not you think white collar workers will still be working from home – living in commuter belts, in or around small towns or in remoter parts of the country side with decent broadband – or will have migrated back into the offices, city pubs and crammed trains, depends largely on whether or not you have a financial interest in the value of commercial real estate. One thing everyone seems to agree on, though, is that video conferencing technology, such as Zoom, has been, and will continue to be, central to this revolution in working patterns.
Whatever the future of white collar work holds, I feel I can confidently predict that video conferencing will be not-so-fondly remembered as a weird crutch that everyone was obsessed with for about 12-18 months, before people realised it actually serves no purpose at all.
To argue this point, I will ask the question – why do we actually have offices in the first place? Who are they for? What problems do they solve? And which of those problems does video conferencing actually come close to addressing?
The history of bureaucratic white-collar work goes something like this: there are two main threads of office work which emerged around the Industrial Revolution – state-administration, and the bourgeoise professions (accountants, lawyers, traders, etc). Of the two threads, state administration is the older: bureaucracies of this sort can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Hierarchies beyond a certain size need paperwork, because the people in charge need a way to have their wishes transmitted authentically without corruption (accidental of nefarious) to hundreds or thousands of lowly peons. Hence the priestly, and later bureaucratic, class, tasked with the top-down administration of unwieldy empires and later nation-states according to the insights or whims of their rulers.
Obviously, this type of administration pre-dates the “office” as we currently recognise it. There aren’t many western institutions which have been in continuous operation from medieval through to post-industrial times which we can analyse in this way, but one of them might be the British Parliament. Originally an ad-hoc assembly of the King’s noblemen, gathered as and when the King needed to raise some cash through taxation, this travelling parliament eventually evolved into the more stationary one we know today, where MPs have permanent offices and travel between their constituencies and the debating chambers according to how often they feel the need to escape from those people who elected them there in the first place. In 2021, those MPs are now spending a lot more time in their constituencies. Voting can now happen remotely, although MPs still have the option of attending debates in person. It’s hard to imagine British government functioning in quite the same way without the cut-and-thrust of rigorous parliamentary debate, but then again, it’s hard to see how any type of video conferencing solution could recreate it either (just look at what happened in this disastrous parish council meeting)
What of the rest of the state apparatus? The ambassadors, bureaucrats, etc? Well, to once again take an example from British history, a small cadre of Oxbridge-educated civil servants based in Whitehall, London, used to administer the largest empire in history with no more advanced technology than the telegraph. I can’t quite imagine a Zoom meeting between Prime Minister Disraeli and the governor-general of India, not to mention with the 120-or-so Indian noblemen scattered about the subcontinent, making this unwieldy task any easier.
So much for administering an empire. What about lower-level state administration – things like welfare, sanitation, treasury, etc? You might not be surprised to learn that the primary reason for co-locating lots of bureaucrats is because…that’s where the filing cabinets were! If you needed to process a tax return, or look up some obscure by-law, you generally had to be co-located with reams and reams of paper containing this information. The fact that this constituted an “office” is purely down to the fact that other people needed to be co-located with these files as well as you. The office was originally built for collaboration insofar as a library is built for meeting girls.
We’ve still not explored the other thread of this – the thread that runs from Venetian merchants to Google’s bean-bags and free lunches. This one is harder to explain. As the artisan evolved into the factory worker, so too did the other professionals – lawyers, accountants, merchants – evolve into the office worker. What was the rationale for this? Why should a lawyer or accountant, each of whom has a few assigned clients, need to work in an office with lots of other lawyers and accountants? Rather than being co-located with their filing cabinets, I suppose the reason is to allow them to share a pool of ancillary staff, like paralegals, typists, etc. However, as the digital revolution has swept through (and, since WWII, rising wages), much of the ancillary staff have been done away with altogether, or else morphed into something called ‘middle management’. The function of middle management, of course, is the same as the ancillary staff: to help the professionals do their jobs better, although by tweaking their job description they were able to negotiate better pay.
If you need ancillary staff (read: middle management), then it stands to reason that you need an office, too. And if you don’t have an office, then you probably need something that will ‘simulate’ an office. Here’s the problem: whereas the ancillary staff of old knew that their job was to type things up, keep appointment diaries and fetch post, middle management believes their job is to hold meetings. Therefore, synonymous with ‘home working’ is ‘Zoom meetings’.
I’ve actually omitted a third thread of office history, which is the monastery (or university in 21st century parlance). Why the need to have a bunch of monks living together? In fact, the original Christian monk was a hermit, living in total solitude. But perhaps in not having a family such a degree of loneliness was too much to bear. Hence the monastery, where, as well as (or perhaps in the course of) worshipping God, monks partook in such pastimes as beer brewing, geometry, and science. The fact that big groups of celibate, literate men living in the same place led to all sorts of interesting by-products is perhaps the root of the modern idea of a university, and that legacy also dovetails into our modern corporate culture which has its roots in the 1980s, whose hallmarks are the borrowing of university lingo such as ‘campus’, and a growing obsession with a nicely marketable form of self-improvement which can be delivered through highly lucrative training contracts.
There is a fleeting sense in which a modern university, with students living in halls, unemployed and frugal, could look a bit like, if you squint, a short stint at a medieval monastery, and whatever value universities still hold is probably related to how long you can hold onto that mirage. But the modern office, with its 9-to-5 clock and day punctuated by meetings and the ambitious preoccupied by the arduous climb up the corporate hierarchy, is even further away. Perhaps the closest thing to the medieval monastery is the startup, with its ungodly hours and religious-fanatical devotion to the cause, and it’s probably no coincidence that working in a startup is generally seen as incompatible with having a social or family life. But no, other than the monastic startup-office-cum-bedsit, the office serves no creative purpose. The modern office is little more than a cargo-cult monastery.
Having read and of course also agreed with all of this, one can only wonder what function software such as Zoom can possibly serve. And I think the answer to this is similar to something we often see from new digital technology: the skeuomorphism of existing ‘analogue’ concepts (ie, the modern ‘desktop’ containing ‘files’ and ‘documents’). Skeuomorphisms are almost always a temporary crutch, a cognitive bridge between the old inefficient way of doing something and the new but conceptually abstract way which will eventually replace it. Consider, for instance, the transition from written letters, to email, to instant messaging. Or how indeed the very idea of an email has become distinct in itself – look at how email etiquette has gradually evolved from when you might write one as you would write a letter in the early 2000s to the modern “see attached. cheers, Tom”. Or look at social media, how Facebook was built on top of your real-world idea of ‘friends’ by inventing the highly skeuomorphic (and somewhat autistic) concept of ‘friend requests’, before Instagram and Twitter developed the more digitally-native concept of ‘following’.
Zoom is the ‘friend request’ of the office world. As our work places reverse the 150-year migration from our homes into purpose built offices, recall that that reversal is due to the sudden erosion of the logic which made us move into offices in the first place: record keeping and reference, ancillary staff, and creative collaboration. Zoom and video conferencing is a sticking plaster, and perhaps a desperate plea by the old guard to remind us of how much better it is when we can all see each other’s faces. But it’s a relic. A shiny, fibre-optic, 21st century relic.